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Open Access Article

Acid mine drainage biogeochemistry at Iron Mountain, California

Gregory K Druschel13, Brett J Baker2, Thomas M Gihring14 and Jillian F Banfield2*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Geology and Geophysics, The University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706

2 Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California–Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720

3 Department of Geology, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT 05405

4 Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington 99352

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Geochemical Transactions 2004, 5:13  doi:10.1186/1467-4866-5-13

Published: 30 June 2004

Abstract

The Richmond Mine at Iron Mountain, Shasta County, California, USA provides an excellent opportunity to study the chemical and biological controls on acid mine drainage (AMD) generation in situ, and to identify key factors controlling solution chemistry. Here we integrate four years of field-based geochemical data with 16S rRNA gene clone libraries and rRNA probe-based studies of microbial population structure, cultivation-based metabolic experiments, arsenopyrite surface colonization experiments, and results of intermediate sulfur species kinetics experiments to describe the Richmond Mine AMD system. Extremely acidic effluent (pH between 0.5 and 0.9) resulting from oxidation of approximately 1 × 105 to 2 × 105 moles pyrite/day contains up to 24 g/1 Fe, several g/1 Zn and hundreds of mg/l Cu. Geochemical conditions change markedly over time, and are reflected in changes in microbial populations. Molecular analyses of 232 small subunit ribosomal RNA (16S rRNA) gene sequences from six sites during a sampling time when lower temperature (<32°C), higher pH (>0.8) conditions predominated show the dominance of Fe-oxidizing prokaryotes such as Ferroplasma and Leptospirillum in the primary drainage communities. Leptospirillum group III accounts for the majority of Leptospirillum sequences, which we attribute to anomalous physical and geochemical regimes at that time. A couple of sites peripheral to the main drainage, "Red Pool" and a pyrite "Slump," were even higher in pH (>1) and the community compositions reflected this change in geochemical conditions. Several novel lineages were identified within the archaeal Thermoplasmatales order associated with the pyrite slump, and the Red Pool (pH 1.4) contained the only population of Acidithiobacillus. Relatively small populations of Sulfobacillus spp. and Acidithiobacillus caldus may metabolize elemental sulfur as an intermediate species in the oxidation of pyritic sulfide to sulfate. Experiments show that elemental sulfur which forms on pyrite surfaces is resistant to most oxidants; its solublization by unattached cells may indicate involvement of a microbially derived electron shuttle. The detachment of thiosulfate (S2O32-) as a leaving group in pyrite oxidation should result in the formation and persistence of tetrathionate in low pH ferric iron-rich AMD solutions. However, tetrathionate is not observed. Although a S2O32--like species may form as a surface-bound intermediate, data suggest that Fe3+ oxidizes the majority of sulfur to sulfate on the surface of pyrite. This may explain why microorganisms that can utilize intermediate sulfur species are scarce compared to Fe-oxidizing taxa at the Richmond Mine site.